Saturday, November 26, 2011

Making the World Better Without Utopia

When I was young, the conflict in Northern Ireland was in the news all the time. As I got old enough to understand it a little, I began to wonder if it could ever be resolved because the eye-for-an-eye nature of it was obvious even to a child. How could the people on one side ever learn to live with those on the other, let alone begin to forgive them?

But somehow it has. One of my favorite parts of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature is his discussion of the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa, a situation that seemed just as intractable as the one in Northern Ireland.

The key is restorative rather than retributive justice. In South Africa, it entailed the following:

  1. Truth telling and acknowledgment of harm.
  2. Rewriting of people's identities, their groups, so that victims can take responsibility for running the country. Rebels become politicians; the military demotes themselves.
  3. Most importantly, it requires incomplete justice. Not every score can be settled. "In other words, peel off the bumper sticker that says 'If you want peace, work for justice.' Replace it with one recommended by Joshua Goldstein: 'If you want peace, work for peace'" (p. 546).
  4. Both sides have to signal commitment to a new relationship with verbal and nonverbal gestures. Peace accords, constitutions, monuments, textbooks, all are key.
None of this can work without at least a minimum of rationality on both sides, and that's very hard for our human brains to come by. But clearly, it can work, since it has worked in several notorious cases of recent decades.

But the one thing that can stop peace in its tracks is ideology, and that's Pinker's bugbear. This guy can't stand utopianism and the moralism that accompanies it, whether from the Left or from religion. Killing, even murder, is often not amoral at all, he writes: "…observations [of murderers] overturn many dogmas about violence. One is that violence is caused by a deficit of morality and justice. On the contrary, violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least they are conceived in the minds of their perpetrators" (p. 84).

At a later point in the book, he writes, "The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest" (p. 622).

Pinker's Analysis of Religion

The violence of the Old Testament tells a story about how people treated each other then; medieval Christianity in practice is better documented in all its torture and crusading mayhem. Believing that you have the one truth is key to this violence.
Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one's savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth is doing him the biggest favor of his life…. And silencing a person before he can corrupt others…is a responsible public health measure…. The method of choice has been specified by Jesus himself: "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the firs, and they are burned."
Beliefs based on faith and not knowledge are fragile and inherently dangerous to others. "Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful" (p. 140).

Estimates are given for the number of heretics and nonbelievers killed by holy slaughter:
  • The Crusades: 1 million out of 400 million on Earth (equivalent to the Jewish holocaust numbers).
  • The French Cathars, wiped out: 200,000.
  • The Spanish Inquisition: 350,000.
  • The Thirty Years' War, which ended in 1648, killed 5.75 million, double the rate of World War I, relative to world population, and coming close to World War II's relative carnage.
And hey, remember those 18th-century novels that began to help people see the world through others' eyes? The Catholic Church denounced them, just as Islam in the past few centuries has lagged in the translation of drama, history and poetry -- and even in adoption of the printing press. The Iranian Ayatollah Khameini declared in 2010 that study of the humanities "promotes skepticism and doubt in religious principles and beliefs" (p. 365). I guess he's on to something there.

And Then There's Nonreligious Utopianism

Pinker also condemns romanticism and its offshoots:
  • militant nationalism ("blood and soil")
  • romantic militarism
  • Marxist socialism
  • National Socialism
"Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite…. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million seems like a pretty good bargain" (p. 328).

Under an all-encompassing ideology with a utopian vision, the end can't help but justify the means. Opponents are infinitely evil, and therefore deserve infinite punishment (p. 556).

Social experiments like Zimbardo's Stanford prison work and Milgram's shock lab are discussed, along with group think and Arendt's spiral of silence. Some of the people who perpetuate violence in the name of ideology are true believers, but most just go along with it because of a perceived social consensus or because they are intimidated. Clustering the true believers within a limited area enforces the norm in that area, and allows it to work its way outward. In Italy, Germany and Japan in the lead-up to World War II, for instance, a "a small group of fanatics embraced a 'naive, vigorous ideology that justifies extreme measures, including violence,' recruited gangs of thugs willing to carry out the violence, and intimidated growing segments of the rest of the populations into acquiescence" (p. 563, with Pinker quoting political scientist James Payne in part of that text).

The psychology of genocide is explored, particularly how it spirals upward from tit-for-tat violence (p. 323 - 325). Revenge and the cycle of violence leads to the moralization of disgust again the opponent. The language of genocide is full of the imagery of disgust: vermin, ethnic cleansing, parasites, bloodsuckers, rats, cockroaches.

Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot all are equally examined and condemned as utopianist ideologues who led to massive death and destruction. Pinker reserves a special place in his low esteem for Marxist socialism, I have to say.

Incrementalism, the Antidote to Utopianism

For Pinker, the way forward is classical liberalism with its base in skepticism, reason, and observation. Classical liberals believe:
  • Knowledge of the universe is possible
  • There is a universal human nature (more on that in The Blank Slate)
  • Morality is grounded in equality and fairness of treatment.
Liberalism arose in the Enlightenment with the accelerating exchange of ideas among 18th-century intellectuals, brought on by improved transportation and cities with their social gathering places, such as coffeehouses. As in Newton's saying about standing on the shoulders of giants, the interaction among intellectuals led to the beginning of the scientific method. "The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were also the age of urbanization" (p. 179). Economist Edward Glaeser is cited as one who thinks that cities led to the rise of liberal democracy.
Oppressive autocrats can remain in power even when their citizens despise them because of a conundrum that economists call the social dilemma or free-rider problem. In a dictatorship, the autocrat and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power, but no individual citizen has an incentive to depose him, because the rebel would assume all the risks of the dictator's reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everyone in the country. The crucible of a city, however, can bring together financiers, lawyers, writers, publishers, and well-connected merchants who can collude in pubs and guild halls to challenge the current leadership, dividing the labor and diffusing the risk" (p. 179).
Democracies are best able to be at peace with each other because "two democracies can recognize the validity of the principles that govern the other. That sets them apart from theocracies, which are based on parochial faiths, and from autocracies, which are based on clans, dynasties, or charismatic leaders" (p. 167). Thus, change for the better happens over time, slowly, rather than all at once in a revolutionary spasm, and that type of incremental change is the best we have to offer.

Modernity -- defined as a combination of reason, science, humanism, individual rights -- is good, despite our usual nostalgia for a simpler past. The facts "show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all" (p. 693). "Genocide and war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal" (p. 694).

Pinker ends the book with an emphasis on humanism. "Defenders of religion have long claimed that in the absence of divine edicts, morality can never be grounded outside ourselves. People can pursue only selfish interests, perhaps tweaked by taste or fashion, and are sentenced to lives of relativism and nihilism. We can now appreciate why this line of argument is mistaken. Discovering earthly ways in which human beings can flourish...should be purpose enough for anyone" (p. 695).

The better angels are within us, after all.


Part 6 of Steven Pinker Week at Daughter Number Three.

No comments: